Meryl Streep serenaded the room with a Joni Mitchell tribute, sweetly warbling “Oh Can-a-daa,” as she accepted an acting award Monday night at the inaugural TIFF Tribute Gala at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel.
Streep, at TIFF for the North American premiere of director Steven Soderbergh’s Pentagon Papers-fallout comedic drama The Laundromat, referenced Mitchell’s much-loved classic “A Case of You,” before cracking a joke about the Jumbotron-sized screens flanking the stage.
She then turned serious, urging the audience to be mindful, explaining for the past decade she’s chosen the roles she takes on by asking herself, “does this help or does this hurt?”
Streep set when became the tone for the first-ever Tribute Gala: a mix of humour and serious reflection from stars and filmmakers about what inspires their work.
The evening gave some 500 guests a rare chance to sit down to supper with Hollywood notables and rising stars in a room dotted with boldface, moviemakers and industry luminaries. They dined on arugula and buffalo mozzarella salad, coffee-rubbed beef tenderloin and a three-tiered dessert platter filled with fancy sweets.
The clink of silverware on china was occasionally annoying as people spoke and it was hard to get a good view of the podium from tables like mine at the far side of the room, but as Streep pointed out, the big screens made it easy to see the stars close up.
My dinner tablemates included Frankie director Ira Sachs and the film’s star, celebrated French actress Isabelle Huppert, along with up-and-coming French filmmaker Mati Diop, who was presented with the TIFF Mary Pickford Award for an emerging female talent in the film industry.
New Zealand actor-director Taika Waititi, at TIFF with satirical comedy Jojo Rabbit, was at the table beside me. Later, he accepted the TIFF Ebert Director Award — named for the legendary late film critic Roger Ebert — in typical humour, with a bizarrely entertaining, off-the-cuff speech.
The six tribute recipients were chosen by TIFF. All of them have films at the Toronto International Film Festival, which continues until Sept. 15. With so many A-listers in town and dozens of films screening daily from morning to midnight, the ongoing festival buzz added to the proceedings. Would some of these acceptance speeches be repeated during awards season?
There’s certainly significant Oscar talk around Joker star Joaquin Phoenix, who was also feted with a TIFF Tribute Actor Award. He drew a big laugh when he confessed he was puzzled about why he was getting the award and from whom. Not that it mattered. “I said: I’m in. Let’s do it.”
Presenters included Roma star Yalitza Aparicio, Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Toro and actor Willem Dafoe, at TIFF with The Lighthouse. Recipients were introduced with a clip reel of their work.
Phoenix admitted he felt emotional while watching the scenes from his films. They reminded him of the debt he owed to people who helped him build his craft and career. Among them was his older brother, the late actor River Phoenix. He said he brought home a video of Raging Bull and made Phoenix watch it repeatedly, insisting it would inspire his return to acting.
“He didn’t ask me, he told me,” Phoenix said. “And I am indebted to him for that because acting has given me such an incredible life.”
Meanwhile, guests got a chance to see promising performers in the early stages of their careers, as Stephan James (If Beale Street Could Talk) and TIFF Rising Stars alumni, introduced this year’s crop of new Canadian and international talent being showcased during the festival.
British cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose latest film, The Goldfinch, premiered at TIFF, was modest as he received the TIFF Variety Artisan Award. The heavy statuette is a gold-coloured rectangle (there were a few jokes about its heft) in a shape inspired by the window of a projection booth.
As the evening kicked off, guests nibbled hors d’oeuvres and sipped pre-dinner cocktails, then crowded around the red carpet in the adjoining ballroom to do some stargzing. Streep was the one everyone wanted to see, but she and her The Laundromat co-stars Antonio Banderas and Gary Oldman — who also presented her award — were running late. They were busy doing introduction duties at the North American premiere of the movie.
Get more of the Star in your inbox
Never miss the latest news from the Star. Sign up for our newsletters to get today’s top stories, your favourite columnists and lots more in your inbox
Participant Media was honoured with the TIFF Impact Award for its dedication to making entertainment that inspires social change. Peyangki, the young Bhutan monk featured in Participant’s TIFF documentary Sing Me A Song, posed for photographers on the red carpet.
Producer David Foster, subject of the documentary David Foster: Off the Record, which also premiered at TIFF Monday, proudly underlined his Canadian roots, then sat at the piano to play a few of his big hits originally recorded by Celine Dion and Whitney Houston. Vocal talents Pia Toscano and Shelea Frazier did powerful renditions of the chart toppers, with some of the crowd singing along.